An underground fire threatens to ignite radioactive waste just 10 miles from Ferguson, MO. (Missouri Department of Natural Resources)
Outside Ferguson, Missouri, another issue burns. This time, it’s environmental.
An underground fire smolders toward radioactive waste tied to the atomic bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This subterranean inferno threatens to sicken area residents, just 10 miles from the site of the controversial, police-involved death of Michael Brown.
Local citizens worry the slowly advancing fire, which has burned at the Bridgeton Landfill since 2010, will reach the World War II-era nuclear refuse at the neighboring West Lake Landfill.
This menace unfolds in a disproportionately Black area. The African-American population of St. Louis County, home to Bridgeton and Ferguson, was 23.9 percent in 2014, according to Census data. That is nearly double the 13.2 percent black share of America’s population.
Residents already complain of a strong smell of garbage and rotten eggs, elevated health problems, and slow government and corporate action. The landfills are owned, largely, by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates — the richest man on Earth, according to Forbes, with a net worth of $77.6 billion.
Securities and Exchange Commission filings from May 2015 show that Gates held more than 108 million shares in Republic Services, the owner of both landfills, through his personal holding company, Cascade Investments, LLC. Republic Services is America’s second biggest waste management business.
The company currently lists 344.8 million shares outstanding. At $46.38 per share, Gates’ 31.5 percent stake was worth $5 billion as of April 8, making him one its largest shareholders. The EPA and other federal and state agencies have fined Republic Services more than $61 million since 2007.
Michael Larson, Cascade Investment’s business manager, has been on Republic Services’ board of directors since 2009. Neither Cascade Investments nor Republic Services replied to Urban News Service’s requests for comment.
“The psychological pain the folks near the landfill have gone through over the last five years has been incredible,” said Ed Smith, safe energy director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. “The landfill stench can impact these people at any time 24/7. The landfill odors don’t care if it is day or night, hot or cold, a holiday or your birthday.”
If this subsurface fire reaches what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls Radiologically Impacted Material (RIM), “the RIM would not become reactive or explosive,” said Curtis Carey, EPA’s Region 7 public affairs director.
However, the landfill’s noxious gases would escape more quickly in the form of steam, radon and “potentially other gases (as determined by the composition of the non-RIM materials present),” said Carey. Radon is a radioactive, cancer-causing gas produced by decaying radium, a by-product of depleted uranium.
The EPA placed the West Lake Landfill on its National Priorities List in 1990 as a Superfund site. Congress created the Superfund program in 1980 to help manage hazardous waste sites. West Lake contained the “oldest radioactive waste of the atomic age,” according to a New York Times report that year, which cited local health concerns even back then. As of March 1, 2016, 1,323 active Superfund sites were on the EPA’s National Priorities List; 33 of which are in Missouri.
This toxic waste survived the Manhattan Project’s uranium-enrichment program. A contractor for the Cotter Corporation illegally dumped it at West Lake in 1973. Since then, a full cleanup has remained in bureaucratic and legal limbo while the EPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and private companies have wrestled over who will mop up this mess.
Even worse, an underground fire spontaneously combusted at the adjacent Bridgeton Landfill in 2010, inching ever closer to the atomic waste at West Lake. The EPA, last December, ordered Republic Services to pay to build a barrier between the fire and the radioactive refuse.
Finding a solution to the problem is “a top priority for EPA,” said the agency’s Region 7 administrator Mark Hague. The EPA says residents are not at risk, but its new report found the fire was only a couple hundred feet from the toxic material — twice as close as previously thought.
Affected Black residents tend to be “more middle-income folks,” said Adolphus M. Pruitt II, president of the St. Louis City NAACP. “But they’re being impacted the same as anybody else as related to the health concerns and the concerns about their property values, their ability to liquidate their property or sell their property in the future — if for some reason they decide to move.” Residents want to be able to move out of the area, hoping the state or the government will buy them out, said Pruitt. “I don’t hold much faith in that happening.”